Changing Perceptions of Croatia: War-torn country to top holiday destination

This year, tourists have flooded to Croatia in numbers that appear set to break records. This surge in interest should come as no surprise – this gorgeous country offers pristine beaches, fantastic local food, beautiful culture-rich destinations, party islands and much more. 

So why has this stunning European country not been on our radars before?

In fact, Croatia was a popular tourist destination in the 1970s and 80s, particularly for Eastern Europeans, Russians and some Americans. However, very few British tourists travelled to this stunning country and, as war broke out across (the nation previously named) Yugoslavia, Croatia’s tourism industry was all but destroyed.

Most people still associate Croatia with the Yugoslavian wars that characterised this area of Europe in the 1990s. Two decades later, the country is a bustling tourist hub and should now be at the top of your travel bucket list.

Croatia’s timeline features a grim mosaic of conquests and revolts, yet few people know the details of this history. To truly understand the factors that shaped these conflicts and the country as it exists today, it is important to trace Croatia’s history back through the years.

Years of conflict and exploitation under various imperial regimes created simmering discontent among many Croats and a strong desire for autonomy. The country had suffered through Venetian rule for centuries followed by Austro-Hungarian administration – the Croats were, understandably, desperate for self-rule.

Consequently, following the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Croatia joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918 with the hope of creating a powerful alliance that represented the views of the Croatian people. However, the decision to join this alliance soon backfired – Croatian autonomy was abolished in 1921. The country was poorly represented and power became increasingly centralised in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.

With the aim to establish Croatia as an independent state, Bosnian-Croat Ante Pavelic created the Ustase Croatian Liberation Movement. Soon after the creation of this movement, Pavelic fled to Italy, fearing arrest, but he would return to play a larger role in Croatia just a few years later.

In 1939, The Croatian Peasant Party managed to negotiate partial autonomy for Croatia, providing much needed hope to the Croatian people. However, just two years later, Nazi Germany invaded and the previously exiled Pavelic was reinstated as head of a new fascist “puppet government”.

According to Lonely Planet, the Ustase programme called for “one-third of Serbs killed, one-third expelled and one-third converted to Catholicism” – the brutality of this programme was said to be shocking even to the Nazis.

Of course, many Croatians opposed this atrocious regime and Tito, leader of the National Liberation Partisan Units, managed to effectively resist the fascist rule and take control. In 1945, Croatia became a republic of the Yugoslav socialist federation.

Tito began his rule with optimistic hopes of equality and unity, attempting to combine the population into the sole category of “Yugoslavs” rather than by distinct ethnic groups. However, in his efforts to do so, Yugoslavia became a one-party state and any group which opposed Tito’s regime was brutally quashed.

In 1971, protestors called for further autonomy for Croatia in an event known as the “Croatian Spring”. Students and activists were abruptly punished and arrested; some even chose exile over the punishment they faced from Yugoslavian forces.

Tito’s death in 1980 left an economic crisis (crumbling under the burden of many international loans) and simmering grievances in its wake. It was time for the republics of Yugoslavia to begin the long road to independence.

In 1991, Croatia officially declared its independence but the fragile relations between the Croats and Serbs were growing increasingly tenuous and fighting broke out across the country. Many Dalmatian cities, including Dubrovnik, were shelled and approximately one-third of Croatia was controlled by Yugoslav armed groups.

Croatia also became involved in the Bosnian War (known as the Yugoslavian Civil War by many Croatians since some of the dispute took place in Croatia and Serbia), between 1992 and 1995, which has become infamous for its terrible war crimes: ethnic cleansing and mass rape characterised this period.

Eventually Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, among others, signed the Dayton peace accords in 1995, concluding the years of brutal fighting.

Croatia gained full sovereignty in 1998. Despite significant cultural differences and simmering tensions between certain regions across Croatia, the country is now, finally, at peace.

Two decades later, Croatia is a beautiful, thriving tourist destination and there are so many places to explore. Here are just a few of your options:

Walk along Dubrovnik’s great city walls, do some cliff jumping and grab an ice cold beer overlooking the ocean at Buza Bar. Make sure to visit the areas of the city used to film Game of Thrones.

Take a boat to Korcula Island (rumoured to be the birthplace of Marco Polo himself) and tour the island’s vineyards. Try a cycling and wine tour – cycle for an hour then drink wine for a few more – fantastic!

The island of Hvar is on its way to becoming the world’s top party destination. A trip here is guaranteed to provide a memorable night (if you manage to remember it at all…)

Croatia’s stunning coasts and pristine cities show few signs of the devastating war-time period, but the 1990s were key to shaping the country into the way it exists today. Visit this incredible country for an authentic cultural experience, to party and to relax, to hike and to dine on wine and cheese – Croatia will impress all kinds of tourists.

Picture of Hvar Town is courtesy of 

Article written for The National Student:

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